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What may happen during Bangladesh’s next general election?

Rapid Action Battalion, RAB, Donald Lu, Jamaat-e-Islami, US, Bangladesh, Global Magnitsky Act, Horacio Cartes, Hugo Velázques, Paraguay Marc Ostfield, Ricardo Martinell

In January 2024, Bangladesh will be holding its next general election, where Islamist forces, including Jamaat-e-Islami are making frantic bids in returning to power with the help of Western governments, particularly the Biden administration. While back in December 2021, the US Department of Treasury had imposed sanctions on a number of officers of Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the elite force of Bangladesh Police that combats terrorism and militancy, recently during his Bangladesh visit, Donald Lu, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs in the State Department said, Washington was considering imposing more sanctions on RAB in December 2022, but such actions were not taken as RAB has already shown significant progress in fighting terrorism and militancy and it has not shown signs of violating human rights.

But, according to recent media reports, US is considering imposing sanctions on dozens of individuals, including some Bangladesh nationals, using Global Magnitsky Act on allegations of corruption and money-laundering. Several high-ranking officials in Washington DC told me that process of imposing such sanctions have already started, where few days ago, the US has imposed sanctions on Paraguay’s former president Horacio Cartes and four of his companies, and accused Cartes of engaging in corruption before, during and after his term as president.

Paraguay’s current vice president Hugo Velázques was also sanctioned over his part in alleged corruption. US ambassador to Paraguay Marc Ostfield said on Twitter that the actions aim to protect “our financial system and support Paraguay in its fight against corruption”.

Separately, the US barred former president of Panama Ricardo Martinell from entering the country, “for his involvement in significant corruption”, according to a designation by the Department of State.

The US has accused Martinelli, who was in office from 2009 to 2014, of accepting bribes in exchange for improperly awarding government contracts during his presidency. “Such acts of public corruption diminish confidence in governance and reduce resources available for schools, hospitals, roads, and other government services”, said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement.

In December 2021, Luis Enrique Martinelli Linares and Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Linares, who also featured in the Pandora Papers, pleaded guilty to laundering US$28 million in bribes paid by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht to a Panamanian official during their father’s presidency. Although federal court documents didn’t identify the Panamanian official by name, only saying the person was a “close relative” of the Martinelli brothers, a press release from the US embassy in Panama identified Martinelli as the beneficiary of the bribes. A defense attorney for one of Martinelli’s sons told a federal judge in May that the brothers were “roped into this money laundering conspiracy … by their father … who was the recipient of the Odebrecht bribes”, according to a court transcript.

Those Washington officials indicated that “dozens” of Bangladesh nationals may fall under US sanctions “by this year” on allegations of corruption and money-laundering.

When asked, if leaders of Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) would fall under US sanctions for corruption and money-laundering, Washington officials said, “it may not happen”.

Why? Because, BNP and its Islamist partner Jamaat-e-Islami are spending hugely on lobbyists and desperately pursuing with the US authorities and pushing forward names of a large number of Bangladesh nationals, mostly connected to ruling Awami League with the suggestions of bringing them under sanctions on charges of corruption and money-laundering.

This is certainly bad news, especially when Bangladesh is heading towards another general election in 2024. Shockingly, policymakers in Bangladesh seem to be either unaware or reluctant on this serious matter, while they even are not countering anti-Awami League negative propaganda that is continuing in the international media for months.

With such adverse situation, Bangladesh will choose its next government at elections that will take place in January next year. According to analysts, for the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the vote will be crucial given that it will be a reflection of the popular will regarding the various development programs as well as foreign policy measures that the Awami League has undertaken since its return to power in January 2009.

Meanwhile, BNP and Jamaat have been consistently telling Western policymakers that any election held under Awami League government won’t be free, fair and transparent. Awami League government, which until now is unwilling to accept BNP-Jamaat’s demand for holding the election under a “caretaker government” or “government of national consensus” also realizes too-well the imperative for an election that must be free, transparent and credible. Such a need arises from the perception among many that the elections of 2014 and 2018 suffered from drawbacks that the government has had a hard time trying to explain away.

Although former military dictator General Hussain Muhammed Ershad’s Jatiya Party continues to play the role of an opposition in the parliament, in practical sense, this party does not enjoy a public support or vote bank in comparison to that of BNP or even Jamaat-e-Islami. International community, including the US do not endorse Jatiya Party as a genuine opposition as it has in the past played the role of opposition while several key figure of this party, including its founder General Ershad were ministers in Awami League’s “coalition” government.

According to journalist and political commentator Syed Badrul Ahsan, “In recent weeks, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), founded by the country’s first military ruler General Ziaur Rahman, has come forth with a 27-point program it believes will lead to a process of a reform of the state. The BNP’s belief is that the state, indeed the institutions of the state, have either been undermined or politicized by the Hasina government in these past many years.

“The difficulty for Bangladesh’s people comes through the BNP’s inability or reluctance to explain its inclination or otherwise toward undertaking reforms within itself before it can go ahead with its election-related plans. And that precisely is where the dilemma for Bangladesh’s people comes in.

“The BNP in its years in power under General Ziaur Rahman, Justice Abdus Sattar and Khaleda Zia, promoted an ideology of ‘Bangladeshi nationalism’ which was at variance with the concept of Bengali nationalism espoused by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and his Awami League in the mid-1960s and leading up to the liberation of Bangladesh in December 1971. Up until the assassination in August 1975 of Sheikh Mujib, revered as Bangabandhu (friend of Bengal) and father of the nation by his people, Bengali nationalism served as the core of the nation’s constitution, underscored as it was by the principles of secularism, socialism and democracy.

“When, therefore, talk of free elections comes up in the country, public attention is quickly drawn to the failure of the opposition to come forth with any guarantees that the divisive policies it pursued in the years between 1975-1996 and again between 2001-2006 will be abandoned and that it will embrace the principles enunciated and brought into fruition through the emergence of the sovereign state of Bangladesh in 1971.

“In simple terms, Bangladesh is now caught between a rock and a hard place. With the elections approaching, the government is doing all it can to fend off western, essentially American pressure in national politics. Curiously enough, the degree of influence necessary to convince the electorate that the opposition is now ready to go for policy change and political reforms within itself has been conspicuous by its absence”.

He added stating, “Islamist militancy may have been curbed by the government in an appreciable way, but that is hardly any reassurance that religious militants are a spent force considering the series of militant hideouts the security forces have been unearthing in recent months.

“The danger will increase, perhaps exponentially, if the Bangladesh state is once again seized by forces, meaning the political parties which have failed to convince the nation that they have reformed themselves policy-wise, responsible for the slide which defined the dark period 1975-1996 once more make their way to power.

“Polarized politics is the truth in Bangladesh today. The larger truth is the failure of political parties and elements on the right-wing to identify with the ideology that shaped the idea of Bangladesh more than a half century ago.

“Hence the worry assailing secularists in the country”.

Considering all the odds and challenges posed to the ruling Awami League centering the upcoming general elections in Bangladesh, one may ask – what will happen in 2024? Shall Islamists return to power thus transforming Bangladesh into another Afghanistan? The reply may still be difficult to find, but one plain truth is – Awami League government and the state-machinery are not realizing the consequences of BNP-Jamaat’s undeterred efforts, persuasion and frantic bids in misleading the Western policymakers with the well-produced propaganda stuff.

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An internationally acclaimed multi-award-winning anti-militancy journalist, writer, research-scholar, counterterrorism specialist and editor of Blitz.. He regularly writes for local and international newspapers on diversified topics, including politics and counterterrorism. Follow him on Twitter @Salah_Shoaib


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